Please note that this review includes mild spoilers!
Writing about Prometheus is a difficult task for me. I have always been a giant fan of Ridley Scott’s original Alien, which to me is a perfect movie, and I do really like the entertaining rollercoaster ride that is James Cameron’s Aliens. I also have a real soft spot for David Fincher’s Alien 3 and the in my opinion underrated Alien Resurrection by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which are far from perfect, but add interesting shades of conflict for the heroine of the franchise, Ellen Ripley. All four films have a thematic richness that is less interested in mythological question, but more in human drama or – because these films are horror films – human dilemma.
The expectations for Scott’s return to Sci-fi and the franchise are so high that it is honestly very difficult to write about Prometheus. Blade Runner is probably my favorite film ever, and while it is now generally considered a masterpiece, it was very differently perceived when it came out. Sci-fi films are a difficult task to either make and to review, because only time will tell whether the ideas presented are really relevant for the future as much as the present. I’m really relieved that the genre is experiencing a new wave (another example is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity) and it is interesting to see if this new interest in Sci-fi is just a throwback to a long-gone genre, or if these new films can use the tropes of the genre to articulate new original ideas.
Another problem with reviewing Prometheus is that not only every single money shot in the film has been spoiled by the very effective marketing campaign; the scenes have also been rearranged in a misleading way in the trailers, suggesting a very straightforward plot that is basically the same as in Alien. I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but noticed that most of the signature moments have been spoiled through the marketing in a way that the trailers suggested a different tone and threat than in the final film.
Prometheus tells the story of a team of explorers led by Dr. Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them to a distant planet, where they find the creators of mankind. The mission is financed and controlled by the Weyland Corporation under the supervision of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and assistance of David (Michael Fassbender), the crew’s android servant, who both have their own agenda. Soon everyone must realize that the discovery on this distant planet is not only a threat to their lives, but to all mankind.
The film seems to draw its ideas from classic pieces of Science fiction writing like H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness or even Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, which also features a space station named Prometheus. In tone, the film resembles the fiction of Erich von Däniken that promotes the idea that mankind on Earth was created by an alien race which, in his theory, is documented in human archaeological artefacts, wall paintings and mythological and religious writings. A big Sci-fi fan as a young teenager, I went to a Erich von Däniken reading once, and while his ideas were fascinating for a 13-year-old geek, his ideas now seem rather naïve and esoteric, and rather un-scientific to me. Ridley Scott and screenwriters John Spaihts and Damon Lindeloff do something similar in Prometheus, transforming the Science fiction universe Scott has created over 30 years ago into what’s basically a fantasy story.
Visually, the film is breathtaking on almost every level and a true Science fiction film. Scott knows how to create a future world and how to sell it as a plausible setting through the production design, which is one of the best I have seen in a long time. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography features a clarity and grandeur that is usually lost in most Sci-fi films and that helps focussing on the characters without any distracting elements. It makes the lush and very successful 3D work in a way that you won’t even think about it. It’s less showy than Scorcese’s Hugo or Camerons Avatar, but extends the world in a subtle and effective way. The creature design is also great, as the texture and look is realistic, while the human make-up is at times distracting and not always as successful. Still, you can see the work of a visual master on every level, especially in the practical-looking giant sets, and in the opening shots and the on the alien planet, as parts of the film were shot in Iceland. Prometheus is worth a ticket price just for the visual spectacle.
The tricky thing with Science fiction is that it’s a niche genre for those who are really interested in bold ideas, and less into human plausibility and relatability. It’s only those stories or films that succeed in explaining why these ideas are relevant for us humans that really transcend into something more accessible, meaningful and entertaining. Alien does exactly that by drawing a large part of the suspense and dramatic conflict from attacking relevant questions of gender and power (Ripley as a new unlikely female heroine, a male member of the crew being raped by the Facehugger and giving birth to the xenomorph), of social class (the tension in the crew is fuelled by constantly questioning the hierarchy in the crew), of xenophobia (the alien features no human characteristics), of corporate monopoly (The Weyland-Yutani Corporation controls the mission), technological progress (there’s an android an he is dangerous) and of the growing fear of viral diseases. It’s basically everything someone in the late 70’s could be afraid of, and it proofs to be still very relevant. Blade Runner, with a less effective, but more novelistic screenplay, does transcend the fear of an ecological and human crisis of the early 80’s into something relatable by questioning the value of the human conscience itself. In both films, the great visual direction supports the very human drama in the screenplay, the things that make us want to follow these characters until the final moments of the film, that make us want to see if Ripley or Deckard survive – literally and emotionally.
Although Prometheus features some really interesting performances by Rapace, Fassbender, Theron and Idris Elba, who plays Janek, the captain of the ship Prometheus, there are some major problems with their characters. Rapace’s Shaw turns out to be some sort of religious scientist, and by trying to present her as more religious than scientific, she becomes an altered version of an Evangelical Creationists. Her motivations seem naïve and not particularly deep, in a performance that makes her look very simple-minded and not really accessible. It’s also important to notice that while every other actor seems comfortable in their roles, Rapace’s acting style is more naturalistic and much more emotionally uneven. There are some really interesting moments, but sometimes I did not know what to make of her in this particular universe. Her character lacked the clarity, intelligence and emotional accessibility of a great lead. It also does not help that Rapace tries to have a proper British accent, while she somehow still sounds Swedish. It wouldn’t be a problem to me if she had a strong Swedish accent, if her lines hadn’t felt so forced.
There is something really intriguing in the way a religious scientist, an android, a corporate rep and a pragmatic captain clash, but they do not really change in the course of the film, nor are their motivations clear (with the exception of Theron’s Vickers). There is one moment with David and later on with Captain Janek that do not really make sense. The writing in Prometheus basically feels like that of a TV show pilot, as it presents an interesting set-up where the characters would have the chance to become really interesting through the events of a first season. The problem is that this kind of writing is not efficient enough for a feature film. Instead of using dialogue to make these characters human or even change their motivations and view of the world (films like the far superior The Exorcist, which also features a believer as the central character, do that effectively), they are constantly used to emphasize their role in the crew, something that the audience already knows from the first time we meet them. The rest of the crew features only redshirts that are not really memorable, even when they’re dying.
Which leads us to the main problem of Prometheus: It basically lacks any suspense or feel of real danger. There are some single nice suspenseful scenes in the middle of the movie, but the screenplay lacks any coherence, as it throws too many ideas into one movie. It’s like a cartoon show; After a great build-up in the first hour of the movie, people react to horrible events, only to act as if nothing had happened in the next scene. There is something really brave and interesting in the way that most characters don’t seem to feel anything when someone of the crew dies, but the problem is that the audience doesn’t feel anything, either, because there are no real consequences to it. Things just happen. Especially with a particularly effective and impressive scene featuring Rapace’s character Shaw, the situation itself is horrifying and suspenseful, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact it would have in any other film, because the film is jumping straight into the next idea, which made me lose any attachment to the characters in too many subplots. The screenplay is basically a random mix of Sci-fi-ideas, some are interesting, some as irritating as the ending of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine or the Resident Evil franchise, and they don’t add up to something fully realized. It’s that kind of story that would be a great read as a novel, and therefore still is a great Sci-fi achievement, but doesn’t create the necessary emotional investment you need when you watch real people on screen.
The film is also very much the prequel Lindelof and Scott said it was not, because it is similarly related to it’s original material like The Chronicles of Riddick is to Pitch Black or The Phantom Menace is to Star Wars. While the creature design is really interesting and the special effects are great, the film basically extends and somehow disarms the mythology of the original film by making the Alien life form much more complicated than necessary and therefore less effective. The problem is that every species in the film seems to be a reference to the original facehugger, xenomorph or space jockey and doesn’t offer something particularly new in terms of mythology, behavior or even scares. Like many elements in the film, they just seem to be there, because they are a variation or reference of something in the original Alien. Storywise, they don’t make real sense, and as much as I love H.R. Giger’s original design, I’m wondering if more story-elements would feel more obviously out of place, had they decided to design and build an entirely new and challenging universe – which probably would have created a more interesting film. In many ways, Prometheus feels like a corporate job, a Best Of that never manages to create something new with its narrative.
Its strategy works a little bit like the X-Files-movie Fight the Future, with a fairly similar showdown. The screenplay is so busy putting cool references into the film that it totally lacks a consistent theme. The conflict between religion and science, between Creationism and Darwinism doesn’t move beyond some superficial statements, and I really don’t understand Shaw’s motivation, which is supposed to be the emotional center of the film. Combined with a score that sounds like it was made for a Braveheart-sequel, Prometheus never manages to find its own tone and voice. Judging from the reaction of the audience I saw it with, it’s a great visual feast for Sci-fi- and Alien-fans, but the general audience will have a hard time accessing it, nor will they want to rewatch it.
The review was first published at CC2K.